World Press Institute considers revival

By Matt Day

The World Press Institute, in limbo since its financial trouble and cancellation of programming in April, is on the verge of reinstating its fellowship program for fall 2008.The situation looked bleak for the WPI in the spring. The international journalism program, which was founded and run at Macalester, cancelled its programming after a significant funding shortfall.

The board appointed an executive committee at its April 5 meeting to work with Macalester to find a way to revive the program.

Six months later, the WPI board is confident that the institute can resume activity as early as next year.

“The WPI board looks forward to finalizing an amicable agreement with Macalester very shortly and anticipates re-establishing the fellows program in the second half of 2008,” WPI board President Ginny Morris said.

A small group of WPI board members is currently negotiating with Treasurer David Wheaton to find a way of paying the institute’s debt to Macalester, Wheaton said.

“We’re talking to them actively right now on getting an agreement about how the debt will be repaid,” Wheaton said.
“I think its best to say that it’s ongoing.”

He added that the institute’s future relationship with the college remains undefined.

“I think it looks like it may be off campus,” Wheaton said last month.

Founded in 1961 by DeWitt Wallace, the WPI was designed to facilitate international understanding at the height of the Cold War.

The program invited a group of international journalists to campus each fall and instructed them on reporting in the free press atmosphere of the United States. Fellows would participate in seminars and briefings at Macalester for a month, after which they traveled the country, visiting media, health care, education, and other institutions.

The WPI incurred its major expenses each fall, Wheaton said. Philanthropic organizations, which provided the bulk of the program’s funding, would make their contributions the following spring.

“The idea was to have it balance within a year,” Wheaton said.

Macalester acted as the WPI’s fiscal agent, managing its endowment and covering its debt during the months between the program’s activities and it’s fundraising, former WPI Director Doug McGill said.

Trouble came in the spring when the philanthropic Knight Foundation announced that it would no longer give to the WPI. The foundation’s contribution amounted to $125,000, almost a quarter of the institute’s budget, Wheaton said.

“That caught the attention of David Wheaton and Macalester,” McGill said.

McGill resigned in March after he failed to negotiate temporary support for the WPI from Macalester.

“Mac seemed to be concerned with the parallels of the WPI to the Ruminator bookstore,” McGill said, “From Mac’s perspective the WPI was going increasingly into debt without means of future support.”

Ruminator Books, an independent bookstore, which sold Macalester textbooks, closed in 2004 after Macalester decided it could no longer accept the debt it incurred. Macalester was the bookstore’s landlord and biggest creditor.

McGill said that lessons learned from the Ruminator may have motivated Macalester to take quick action when the WPI ran into financial problems.

“We tried to respond more quickly [than with the Ruminator] to contain what was happening and look for a plan to right the ship,” Wheaton said.

The total debt the institute owed to Macalester amounts to more than $160,000, Wheaton said. Wheaton and President Brian Rosenberg, who served as the WPI board’s vice president, recommended to the WPI board that they cancel their 2007 activities.

“We communicated that we didn’t want the debt to get any bigger,” Wheaton said.
“Journalism is in a tough spot,” McGill said. “Finding a business model for journalism is tough these days.”
The WPI may be on its way to finding that model.

“The board is confident that WPI will have a vibrant and healthy future that retains the best of its proud 46-year history while acknowledging and adapting to a changed world and a very different ‘Fourth Estate’ domestically and globally,” Morris said.